Our young people deserve a secure future
The controversy over GCSE results cannot be seen in isolation: it comes within the context of a large chunk of young people feeling as though the Government is slamming the door in their faces. Pressure from above to correct so-called “grade inflation” meant that 4,000 pupils have been awarded a D in English; but if they had sat their exams before the new grade boundaries in January, they could have expected a C. It will have serious consequences for those affected: getting less than C in a crucial subject like English will lock them many of them out of sixth-forms and apprenticeships. No wonder even many of Michael Gove’s own favourite headteachers – such as Joan McVittie – are speaking out.
That the future of young people is at stake because of ideologically driven agendas is tragically far from novel. Since the beginning of the financial crisis, and the Cameron government’s use of it to push a right-wing agenda that would otherwise be politically impossible, the prospects of millions of young people have taken a battering. It’s been widely noted that, for the first time since World War II, the next generation will have a worse lot in life than those before them. It’s a phenomenon that Ed Miliband has referred to as the ending of the ‘British Promise’, where children can expect a better life than their parents. Of course there were always exceptions, not least those who grew up mining villages or steel communities pummelled by Thatcher’s slash and burn economics in the 1980s. But that much of the current generation faces a deeply insecure and uncertain future is taken for granted across the political divide.
It is important, though, not to fall into the trap of talking about “generation” like it is a homogenous group. Some young people are being hit hard; others are cocooned from austerity. A young man from a millionaire family and educated at a public school, for example, has little to fear. He can draw upon the almost limitless financial support and contacts of his parents, whether that be to cover extortionate private rents, pay out for a mortgage, or survive in an unpaid internship in media, politics, or law. Compare that to a young woman born in an ex-mining community, lacking any secure jobs with good wages to look forward to, and with no funds or networks to draw on. Austerity is not felt in the same way by all young people.
Youth unemployment figures reveal many of these divisions. It is ex-industrial areas such as Hartlepool and Darlington that have experienced the biggest rises in youth unemployment. The number of young people out of work has flat-lined at a relatively low level in middle-class suburbs such as Kensington and Chelsea, Richmond and Kingston-on-Thames, where the level is four times lower than the national average. Young people from ethnic minority backgrounds are being hit harder, too. While over a fifth of 18-to-24-year-olds are out of work, the unemployment rate among young black men has nearly doubled from 28.8% in 2008 to 55.9% at the end of last year.
Being out of work at such a young age can have a devastating impact. According to a survey by the Prince’s Trust, one in 10 of those out of work turned to drugs or alcohol abuse. Overall, the young unemployed were twice as likely to feel mental distress, such as depression or a sense of rejection. Research reveals that the impact can last for many years. Those unemployed in their young years are far more likely to be out of work later in life: on average, if you are out of work before you reach 23, you can expect to spend 1.3 months of unemployment between the age of 28 and 33 more than someone who had a job when they were young. There is a “wage scar”, too, with the young unemployed likely to be paid less later on.
Where there is work for young people, it is often low-paid and insecure. Because of the disappearance of so many middle-income skilled jobs from the 1980s onwards, we have been left with a so-called “hourglass economy” with a proliferation of middle-class professional jobs at the top, and poorly paid jobs in the service sector at the bottom. Retail is the second biggest employer in the country, but the jobs are often low-paid, low-prestige and insecure. The average turnover for shop workers, for example, is 62% a year; and a supermarket checkout worker can expect little above the minimum wage.
Even after accumulating tens of thousands of pounds of debt at university, a graduate has no guarantee of a well-paid, secure job. More than a third of recent graduates were in non-graduate jobs at the end of 2011. Ten years ago, it was about a quarter. Around a fifth of new graduates are out of work altogether, about twice as high as the pre-recession level.
With such an uncertain future for young people who go to university, no wonder that many have concluded that a degree is not worth accruing huge amounts of debt. Following the trebling of university fees, the number of British residents applying for university has dropped by 8.9% compared to last year.
As well as the lack of secure work, young people will struggle to get an affordable home, too. There are now up to five million people stuck on social housing waiting lists because of the failure of successive governments to build council housing. With owner occupation has been in decline for 7 years, growing numbers of young people have been forced into the unregulated private rented sector. According to Shelter, around a quarter of families in London rent their home from a private landlord, a jump of 70% in just two years. Private rents are soaring: in the capital last year rent increases were nearly double the rate of inflation.
But it is not just the future that looks bleak for young people: the here and now is increasingly precarious too. Government policies are driving up levels of child poverty. Following cuts to working tax credits, the Resolution Foundation projects that a young couple working 23 hours while raising a child, and getting by with £15,000 a year, will lose a fifth of their income. The Institute for Fiscal Studies estimate that the average family with children stand to lose £511 a year. And while the Liberal Democrats boast of pushing up the tax threshold to benefit low-paid workers, it is more than cancelled by cuts to tax credits and benefits and the hiking of VAT.
No wonder that Save The Children report that some parents are forced to choose between heating their homes and feeding their children, and even skipping meals to make sure their sons and daughters are fed. Meanwhile it was reported earlier in the year that schools are cutting costs by shrinking the size of meals.
Poverty can mean growing levels of loneliness: young people unable to afford to go on social excursion like the cinema, or to have friends round for dinner. And with the slashing of youth services – such as the London Borough of Haringey - which imposed a 75% cut - growing numbers of young people have nothing to do.
The prospects for young people – particularly from working-class backgrounds – have severely deteriorated since the economic crisis and austerity began. If there is to be a new political settlement that rejects the failed neo-liberal mantra, the need for a secure future for the next generation must be at its focus. There have already been riots in Britain. Unless radical policies are implemented by a future Labour Government, the danger is the disorder could be a dark harbinger of worse to come.